We had never heard of Ammouliani when we saw it in a brochure mainly devoted to Pelopponese flydrive holidays. It is a speck on our Greece wall chart, 4.5 square kilometres, the only permanently inhabited island off the Halkidiki peninsular, close to the Dhenia islets (seasonal occupants and goats). Most of the Greek Island Guidebooks ignore it because it is not in one of the well-known groups. Well, we had to go didn’t we? I was also encouraged by endorsement from George Papagveris, thanks, George. We flew to Thessaloniki, 2 hour transfer in the rain (1 2/2 hours on the way back in sunshine and early morning) to Tripiti, which is just a jetty and a tavern which we had been told we could wait in. It was closed but the taxi driver waited for the ferry to appear in case we needed to shelter from the threatening storm. About 10 minute ferry trip , mostly cars aboard, and only 2 euros 20 (gone up to 2 euro 50 when we came back). Sissi, the smiling proprietor of our 8 room hotel met us at the dock and a couple of minutes later we were unpacking.
Our first impressions were how green, fertile and wooded, the mainland was and the island was equally green. The first day’s rain and the two subsequent evening thunderstorms explained why! We had a room at the back of the hotel looking over a stretch of grass, used as an informal car park, and some unlovely roofscapes. However we also had a view of a large oleander in flower.
In general it was very quiet once a child given to tantrums and his bellowing parents moved on. We enjoyed having our post-beach cup of tea and pre-dinner glass of wine on the balcony watching the near traffic accidents at a crossroads with no priority marked and no direction signs, so lots of reversing, U-turns and gesticulating! Great fun!.
The island has a winter population of between 500-600, mostly in the sole port village. We only met one English couple while we were there. The bulk of the holidaymakers were Greek and from the Balkanbs: Bulgarian, Romanian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Bosnian, FYROM, with some Polish campervanners and the occasional German. English was widely spoken between these groups but locals were keen to practice on us native speakers and tolerated our usual limited Greek.
After our first evening meal we passed a barn-like Pizza restaurant which had a uniformed choir singing. On other nights it was pretty empty despite a large screen showing some football competition or other. (We had a tv in our room but we didn’t switch it on). Wanderiung round the village to get our bearings (too small to get lost in!) we found the attractive main square ( most of the village was not attractive, a few older building did remain, mostly being fixed up, the other buildings probably hastily erected to accept refugees from the Proponte islands of Anatolia in the 1920s). Outside the Folk Museum (hours of opening not displayed) a group of older Greeks were dancing to music from inside. On a subsequent evening, following the sound we saw a live band ( 2 bouzoukis, keys, fiddle, clarinet, accordion and drum) accompanying a visiting group of dancers and local girls doing a handkerchief dance. An elderly (our age!) local lady urged us to sit down and watch and explained, in Greek too fast for us, the significance of the dances.
The islanders exist by fishing and tourism. Apart from some small-scale vegetable growing, and the odd chicken, agriculture had been abandoned. There were lots of untended olives and trees and shrubs indicated a lack of goats (though there were some on the Dhenia islets). Research before we went indicated there were no taxis, few motorbikes and a donkey-pulled bus to the beaches. We saw two taxis (one was from Bucharest so presumably the driver’s family on holiday), the donkey bus freshly painted in a field but to donkey, and LOTS of motorbikes. The minibus to the beaches was active but no timetable posted (and no STASIS signs) until our second week. It seemed to bear no relation to the online version or to the times the bus came ( or didn’t). As the beaches were all between half an hour and an hour’s walk, we didn’t need it. In 35 years of visiting Greece we have never hired a car. We have sometimes hired a motor boat but otherwise walk or use local buses. It used to be common for locals to offer us a lift in al manner of rickety vehicles, sometimes hi-jacking us to share a drink, people we palled would offer us water and a cake or biscuit. Now we are in our 70s, the only people who offered us a lift were a Bulgarian couple (we had been waiting for a ‘bus back from the furthest beach which didn’t materialise) and an Albanian. The Bulgarians told us they could drive to Ammouliani in about 5 hours.
We knew that going in July we would find the weather hotter and there would be more families about. The beaches were certainly busier than we are used to, mostly 30-somethings with children. The beaches were ideal for them with golden sand and safe bathing, and most had at least a cantina for snacks and drinks, and some had pedalos etc available. Sunbeds and umbrellas were free if you bought a drink. The village and the beaches with facilities were all kept clean and there was a blue flag beach but that had padlocked beds only available to patrons of a nearby resort. Dustcarts collected garbage daily, even on Sunday. Apart from old fishing nets dumped at the roadside, the roads had the usual litter, but then so does Ascot. While exploring where to go we saw a long narrow beach with only a couple of domestic umbrellas on it and some rock pools. When we got down to it ( I believe it was called Limonaki) we were saddened to see it was the filthiest beach we have seen: covered it the usual plastic detritus, bags of unidentified rubbish and lots of plystyrene fish boxes, whole and broken and beer crates ( on our way to another beach we saw a field full of discarded plastic crates, surely they coule have been returned?). Resedents of the few buildings across the road weemed happy to swim, sunbathe and fish amongst all this, as did the boat hire business at the end. With 20% youth unemployment in Greece one would have thought the island’s Development Corporation (we saw their office in the square) could have hired a team to clear the beach before the season began and kept one or two people to do a weekly sweep? We renamed the beach Akti Plastiki.
We have for years been amazed at the anmount of stuff families bring to beaches these days, now they all come by car. OK I was a bucket and spade kid, but now it is inflatable couches, flamingos, unicorns etc. We saw one flamingo unattended get blown away towards the Dhenia islets recovered by a motorboat (the mother of the family then berated the father who was supposed to be in charge of it!). One family had an inflatable couch but when the father sat in it the child already ensconced was propelled into the air! Most nights we saw a car with an inflatable flamingo on the roof passing our balcony but never got the camera out in time! We also saw a car returning from the beach full of passengers and with a teenager clinging to the boot (trunk) outside!
At the weekends the beaches were even busier with weekenders and day trippers, jetskis and private motorboats out in force. One beach had buoys to separate swimmers from boats, but not all swimmers ttook notice. On anotherbeach a hire boat came bklithly into ana area where families were swimming until shouts (and those piercing whistles Greeks are capable of) warned the helmsman off. Children were well catered for by a funfair, amusement arcade and playground. We noted the cultural difference: the playground closed between 2-6 for the siesta time then reopened until midnight. We saw a single policeman ( no port police or coastguard met the ferry) driving around who seemed to come and go on the ferry. There weren’t many churches outside the main village, considering the island had been a monastic community for years.
The beach we used most had young women in Daily Dukes and bikini tops serving the drinks. Herself suggested that might have been a hiring requirement. I hadn’t noticed, of course, I always suck my bely in when ordering a drink. We were driven off one by the ear-splitting Europop played by the beach bar but that was on only one occasion. I hoped one of the tattooed Bosnian warlords or Serbian wrestlers with more hair on their back than their head , a flokati rug on their chest and no necks who seemed to be on the beaches might have” had a word”, as children were being put down for their afternoon nap. Most of the men in these couples seemed to weigh about 4 times the weight of their wives, who were all on the Melania Trump model.
If we felt 3 decades older than anyone else on the beach, when we went over to Ouranopolis to do the cruise along the Ayoios Oros, the Athos peninsular with the monasteries, we were more in our age group. It was interesting to see the souvenir shops aimed at the devout, including vestments and “I’ve seen Mt Athos” T-shirts as well as holy water, icons etc. We saw the Men Only ferry taking monks, priests and lay pilgrims with rucsacks and staffs to do the walking tour of the holy sites. There was also a company of soldiers going to relive the garrison keeping the peninsular safe from pirates, Turks and the Monstrous Regiment of Women. The boat we were on to view the monasteries had a jolly group of ladies of a certain age who were probably the Provisional Wing of the local W.I. who joshed a young priest on board and pressed food and water on him. There was also a large group of Romanian pilgrims, of all ages and both sexes whose matching neckerchiefs showed they were celebrating 100 years of the Romanian Patriarchate. Towards the end of the cruise an elderly priest from one of the monasteries (presumably chosen as the least likely to be contaminated by contact with the dreaded female sex) was brought out from shore and dispensed blessings to the faithful: there was a stampede of the Greek and Romanians for personal blessings such that we were an hour late getting back to Ouranopolis. The lateness may have upset the captain of the smaller boat returning us to Ammouliai as he rammed the quay with his stern, despite shouts from his crew, nearly shaking a large Greek lady off the companion ladder, luckily she held on with one hand till her friends rescued her. We were glad we had made the trip in high season as we weren’t sure whether we could have got the trip otherwise. I also learned the name of the London Greek restaurant we go to Konaki is the name for the temporary lodging the monastery representatives use when the go to their governing conclaves.
Food on the island was good, some Balkan recipes offered, lots of fish, reasonably priced. I had a couple of dishes new to me (always an aim) and never repeated the same main course in the evening for a fortnight (another aim) despite some things like marithes rabbit, goat and horta not appearing on any menu. I noticed the use of white rather than red onions in all the dishes. Some good menu translations to enjoy: Political Salad (like coleslaw without the mayo), Fried Narrows, Sty with Mushrooms (pasta sized like barley grains and looking like the eye complaint) Puzzlingly, one restaurant offered no red wine, but half a dozen retsinas and twice that number of tsipouros. Oor hostess, Sissi, gave us enormous breakfasts, often enough for lunch as well. Cheese apple or spinach pies, ham and cheese “toast”, boiled eggs, yoghourt, fruit, bread and jams, even loukoumathes. A good job we were walking everywhere! It may be my Greek accent but I had great difficulty in ordering a 3-star Metaxa in one cafe.
The grass outside our balcony attracted flocks of birds: swifts, martins, sparrows, jackdaws, hooded crows and seagulls ( we saw a lot more seagulls than we’ve seen in other islands). The only snake I saw was a 3’ roadkill and we only spotted one lizard. We saw a martin nestin theporch of Ayios Georgios church and also in the eaves of one tavern where the chicks were still chirping for food.
While we were there the Greater Ammouliani Roadwidening Scheme was in progress: one man with a rake scraping encroaching vegetation from the road surface, this gaining a good foot to help passing traffic, but not cutting back overhanging branches or brambles
The one dirty beach and the lack of tourist information, map, timetable etc. Were the only downsides. Helpful locals pointed out places on the two posted maps in the square and the harbour, but the few roadsigns, both warning and directional had been defaced by spray-painters. We bought postcards and stamps in Ouranopolis as we couldn’t see any local cards on display though later we found one gift shop had a few of one design hidden down the side of the till.
This year Greece has followed countries like Italy in imposing a room tax on visitors, ours came to the princely sum of 7euros (50 cents per room per night!). It will take a long time to pay back the EU at that rate! When we left Gatwick we checked in with almost no human contact, at Thessaloniki theyhad a system even more arcane than Kos. After “dropping” your bag to be weighed it was given back to be taken through security X-Ray, nt adjacent but at the other end of the departures area, having to push through people queuing to “drop” bags at other check-ins.
So, where next? Amorgos in September. Watch this space.